Below is Part Three in a new four-part series of journal entries from OCPM’s Prison Relationship Manager during his internship with OCPM and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (STOTS). If you haven’t already, make sure to read Part One and Part Two of Toby John’s Prison Ministry Journal.
Tuesday, February 28 – March 1, 2023
During that time, I traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota to spend some time with Zossima, the Director of Correspondence at OCPM. Zossima brings a unique background, having spent around 20 years in prison and working with OCPM after his release. All correspondence passes through him, and his prison experience has shaped his particular way of communicating and approaching tasks. I began the day by visiting our OCPM office and meeting Celinda, our Prison Correspondence Associate. Afterwards, we spent a significant amount of time at Zossima’s home, engaging in discussions about prison life and his personal experiences. This initial step aimed to establish rapport with Zossima, as we will be working closely together.
Friday, March 3
Today, I had a long conversation with an Eritrean Orthodox individual. He had known Fr. John since beginning his time in prison and consistently credits Fr. John with saving his life. We discussed the upcoming fast and he shared that he has been dedicating more time to reading the Scriptures, as well as engaging in prayer and meditation. He stepped away saying he will be right back, and he eventually came back with a letter from Zossima and OCPM that included the prayer of St. Ephrem. We spoke about this prayer and went line by line about its meaning. Father John begins every visit in the prison by saying this prayer before he walks into the units. Following our conversation, this individual asked to leave so he can shower and get ready for Vespers.
Today, Vespers was much more moving because we had two individuals say the ‘Our Father’ in their language. One was the Eritrean Orthodox individual who said it in Amharic and a Serbian Orthodox individual who said it in Serbian. How amazing is it that these two individuals were able to pray the Lord’s Prayer in their own language during a Vespers service! Following another beautiful Vespers service, Fr. John and I engaged in an open discussion with the individuals, where they were free to ask any questions about Orthodoxy or any general inquiries they had. We talked about the significance of Lent and fasting. Overall, today was a relatively straightforward day.
Today was a challenging day because several logistical mishaps. Normally, the group is divided among Fr. John and the two other chaplains. However, one of the chaplains were absent today, which meant Fr. John had to oversee a larger group than usual. We split the first unit in two groups and Father John went with the other group in the other hall. We bumped into familiar faces today who approached us for a chat. It felt nice to have these short but meaningful interactions, knowing they remembered us and were open to talking. It was very difficult hearing the individuals because there was a loud radio playing in the hallway. We weren’t sure if we could unplug it or not and so we left it as is. We noticed is that the radio was located next to individuals who were in a current state of psychosis or “level 1.” During my internship at the psychiatric hospital, a music therapist would visit weekly to play music for the patients. I noticed a big difference in their behavior when they listened to the music. So, I thought the radio might serve a similar purpose. When we asked the staff, they explained that it was the only outlet on the floor. Even though it was just a coincidence, I like to believe that the music from the radio also had a positive impact on those individuals.
During our visit, I saw that the polite individual we had spoken to last week had the same demeanor. Very polite and well-mannered. This time around, he had poems and artwork displayed on the outside of his cell door. Even though he didn’t engage in conversation with us again I took a moment to look at his poems and art. Through the art, he expressed themes of trauma and a feeling of not belonging. Considering his ethnic background, I assumed that he might have encountered cultural difficulties while growing up. I really wish he spoke with us because I felt as if I could relate to him due to my ethnic background as well.
We tried to go into the dayroom on the other floors however, we had a difficult time due to our large group and lack of space. As Father John said, “When life gives you lemons, you made lemonade” he came up with a backup plan. Rather than trying to fit in the day room, we went back to the auditorium, and Father John invited some of the individuals who usually attended Vespers to come and speak with us. This incident taught me the importance of adaptability within the prison system. We must be quick on our feet and ready to adjust. It is often us who must adapt to the prison system, rather than expecting it to adapt to us.
Due to the logistical difficulties we experienced last week, Fr. John made some changes. This time, we remained in the auditorium while the individuals came down to us. Throughout the entire session, I spent my time with Bob, from a few weeks ago. Our consistent interactions during my visits to the prison have built a relationship of trust, which made him comfortable opening up to me. During our conversation, he talked about his plans after his release in May. He expressed his frustration about his ex-wife’s refusal to let him see their children, even through video calls while he is still in prison. Despite feeling upset, he remained composed and wished for his ex-wife to put in more effort to arrange the video calls. He always ended by saying, “I understand why she is doing this, and I don’t hold it against her.” I offered him encouragement, advising him to be patient in reconnecting with his children and working on rebuilding his relationship with his ex-wife.
He has consistently expressed his determination to change his life and stay clear of drugs. He mentioned that his release date is the same day as his daughter’s birthday, and he wants to visit her. I advised him to talk to his ex-wife first. I explained that if he shows her his commitment to changing for the better then she may feel more inclined to allow him to spend time with his children. He thought about this and agreed and said he will give that a try. We then spoke the significance of surrounding oneself with positive influences. He shared his desire to prioritize spending time with his family rather than friends to avoid falling back into the struggle of drug addiction.
We also talked about Orthodoxy, particularly the Vespers services that he has been attending. He mentioned enjoying the service and feels more connected with God. He specifically stated, “coming to Vespers makes me feel like I am praying to God but also worshipping Him.” He showed interest in finding an Orthodox Church once he is released, so I advised him to write to OCPM, and when he is ready, we can assist him in finding a suitable church community.
This day was focused on Vespers. Due to various movements in the prison, Monk Michael and I arrived a little later than usual. Once the individuals arrived, we proceeded directly to the Vespers service. We had some new faces joining us today. One of the individuals who attended for the first time expressed his sadness over the recent death of his brother. Father. John had asked me to speak with him after Vespers.
Following the Vespers service, I gave a brief homily centered on the healing of the bent woman, as described in the Gospel of Luke 13:10-17. In my homily, I emphasized the significance of persistent prayer and trust in God, particularly during times of trial and isolation. I connected these ideas to the prisoners, highlighting how even in their deep struggles of being in prison and isolated from the world, they can encounter the Lord through Scripture and find healing.
Later, the person I mentioned earlier and I had a conversation that lasted about 15 minutes. Initially, I assumed that his brother’s passing had occurred recently, but he revealed that it happened two years ago. It was interesting because he would go back and forth between expressing his grief and insisting that he was completely fine and had made peace with the situation. It was clear that he hadn’t been able to properly mourn and cope with the loss of his brother, especially since he couldn’t attend the burial. He had told me that he found out about his brother’s death as he was in another prison. It was comforting to know that the news was delivered to him appropriately. We started speaking about faith when he mentioned not following any specific religion but having a belief in God. We discussed the Orthodox faith, and he shared his appreciation for Vespers, although he found it a bit long. I concluded our conversation by offering a prayer for him and the departed soul of his brother.
As we were concluding our interactions with the individuals, one individual asked me, “Why does Scripture say, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’? Why do we need to fear God if God is love?” I began explaining to him that the term “fear” does not imply being scared but rather having reverence for God or being in awe of God. After this conversation I began to think to myself, “has anyone ever asked me this question or something similar during coffee hour after Liturgy?” I could not think of a time, and it made me appreciate this opportunity for a conversation with someone in prison. It makes me happy that these individuals are trying to spend as much time reading the scriptures and coming up with these questions to ask. Often times, at the parish setting, parishioners would come up to me prefacing a questioning saying “this may be a dumb question…” While no question is actually dumb, I appreciate the fact that these individuals in prison are not ashamed to ask.